Emory Report
October 31, 2005
Volume 58, Number 9


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October 31 , 2005
Transforming Community Project taking
honest look at race

by michael terrazas

As part of Emory’s Unity Month celebration (see story, page 5), the co-chairs of the Transforming Community Project (TCP) will hold an informational session for all members of the University community on Thursday, Nov. 3, at noon in Winship Ballroom.

Leslie Harris, associate professor of history and African American studies, and Gary Hauk, vice president and deputy to the president, are heading up the TCP, now in full swing after being launched last year by Harris and Catherine Manegold, professor of journalism. The project is an ambitious, five-year undertaking that hopes to live up to its name by taking an honest, comprehensive look at the issue of race at Emory—past, current and into the future.

“At Emory we have a big emphasis on the idea of community, of ethical community,” said Harris, acknowledging that the impetus for TCP was a 2003 racial incident in the anthropology department. “It started there, but it doesn’t stop there.

“If you talk to whites at Emory, many—not all, but many—have a positive view of race here,” she continued. “If you talk to blacks, they have a somewhat different sense, that there’s a lot of racial tension. So it’s an attempt to get these groups in conversation with each other during—and this is very important—a non-reactive moment. Perhaps then we can have a more constructive conversation, one where where we truly work toward compromise as opposed to just ‘fixing’ a problem.”

Those non-reactive moments have been happening all semester through the TCP’s first undertaking: a series of ongoing Community Dialogues, each composed of 12–15 individuals from all corners of the University, who agree to meet regularly and talk about race, both in society as a whole and at the micro level at Emory.

Currently four such dialogues are under way—three on the Atlanta campus and one at Oxford—and participants say they’ve been encouraged by an exercise that has both informed them and created an atmosphere of trust.

“Race is a difficult, hot-button issue, and sometimes it’s easier just not to say anything,” said Joe Moon, Oxford dean of campus life and a participant in the Community Dialogue ongoing there.

Moon said his group has meet three or four times. Like the rest of the dialogues, it is led by a pair of facilitators and begins with discussion of the group’s homework (an article or book chapter, for instance) or of a film clip which the group watches together. From there, however, the dialogue can range far afield, from the broadest generalizations to the most intimate personal experiences.

“Most of the comments are pretty personal,” said Maureen Sweatman, assistant director of the Emory Scholars Program and a participant in one of the Atlanta-campus dialogues. Sweatman admitted she is somewhat skeptical about the prospect of “transforming” community, but she still believes the dialogues are a positive step. “I’m of the mind that dialogue is a good thing,” she said. “If nothing else, people are expanding their understanding of race and culture and everything that goes into it.”

But Harris and Hauk hope for much bigger things from the TCP, and 2005–06 is just the beginning. In subsequent years the project will dig its collective hands deep into the dirt of Emory’s racial culture, as far back as 1836 and possibly earlier, as it attempts to unearth better understanding that could lead to positive change.

Though the Community Dialogues will continue throughout the life of TCP (indeed, individual groups will meet as long as they wish to, Harris said), the project will expand in future years to include ever-more creative research tools. For instance, one idea is to collect oral histories of people’s experiences with race at Emory, and another is to encourage related curricula from professors and perhaps even contributions through the arts.

“The project will be defined by the community,” Harris said. “The more different perspectives we get, the more true to the Emory community the project will be. For instance, when we talk about Emory history, we’re talking about a time of slavery, but we’re also talking about a time of native American removal. What impact might that have had on things like Emory’s physical location, the very geography of the campus? This won’t be a one-sided view of history that covers only one or two groups.”

Light refreshments will be served at the Nov. 3 event, which also is sponsored by the Office of Multicultural Programs and Services. Another event not directly tied to TCP but related to its objective is a “Diversity and Race Dialogue” with Provost Earl Lewis, sponsored by the President’s Commission and Race and Ethnicity, to be held Tuesday, Nov. 8, from 5–6:30 p.m. in Winship Ballroom. For more information about either event, call 404-727-6754.